July 21 is a deadline that looms large for the Trump administration to provide more information to Senate appropriators about the Technology Modernization Fund (TMF) and why legislators should change their recommendation made on June 21 to zero out funding for TMF for fiscal year 2019.

TMF was created in late 2017 when President Trump signed a defense spending bill that included the Modernizing Government Technology Act (MGT).  As its name implies, MGT aims to modernize Federal government IT infrastructure, and the law authorized up to $250 million of funding for each of FY2018 and FY2019 for that purpose.  TMF is the fund managed by the General Services Administration (GSA) to which Federal agencies can apply for funding in the form of revolving capital to modernize IT infrastructure and eventually repay funding through savings from improved operating efficiencies.

The administration requested $228 million for TMF funding for FY2018, with that number cut down to $100 million earlier this year under terms of the $1.3 trillion spending bill signed by the President in March.

For FY2019, the House Appropriations Committee voted last month to provide $150 million of funding for TMF, with language encouraging funding for projects to improve citizen-facing services, among other priorities.

Funding Zeroed Out – For Now

But then the FY2019 funding picture for TMF hit a significant snag as the Senate Appropriations Committee moved on June 21 to zero out funding and delivered to the Trump administration pointed instructions to provide Senate appropriators with more information about potential TMF-funded projects.

The Senate appropriators gave GSA 30 days – to July 21 – to provide more data to the committee.

According to the Senate committee’s report accompanying the FY2019 appropriations legislation, the committee was presented with a $210 million budget estimate for the year, up from the $100 million in FY2018.

In explaining its decision to provide – at least for now – no TMF funding for FY2019, the Senate committee noted in its report that as of June, TMF had approved only $45 million of proposals by three Federal agencies, and indicated that it was not happy to be left in the dark on the selection process and the pipeline for further funding proposals from agencies.

“As the TMF reviews the remaining proposals, the Committee encourages GSA and OMB [Office of Management and Budget] to provide additional transparency surrounding agency proposals at each stage of the selection process, including projects submitted for consideration and those selected to receive funding,” the Senate committee said in its report.

“The Committee will continue to monitor the proposal process and work with GSA and OMB to establish metrics for determining program and project success,” it said.

“Within 30 days of enactment of this act, GSA is directed to provide the Committee on Appropriations details on proposals submitted by agencies to the Technology Modernization Fund and proposals that have been awarded funding. For each proposal, the information shall include: the agency seeking funding; the type of project for which funding was requested; the requested and approved cost of the project; the plan for repayment of the funds; and whether a repayment extension was requested, and if so, whether it was granted. For future proposals, GSA shall provide the Committee this information at the time of award.”

Observers of congressional appropriations processes have indicated in published reports the tenor of the Senate committee’s pointed demand for more information on TMF projects and funding, and suggested that strong efforts to meet that demand may help to thaw the current funding lock.

Funding Likely for FY2019, But How Much?

Mike Hettinger, managing principal at Hettinger Strategy Group LLC, and formerly senior vice president at TechAmerica and chief of staff to Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., said in an interview with MeriTalk it was likely that a communications deficit is at the heart of the Senate Approps current stance of zero funding for TMF, and that it’s just as likely that better communications may help to move the funding needle.

Calling the situation a “good wake-up call” for the Trump administration, Hettinger predicted the administration will do everything it can up to the July 21 deadline to supply the Senate committee with all it wants to know about TMF projects already approved and those still in the pipeline.

Hettinger said there was no obvious reason for the apparent communications gap between Senate appropriators and the administration on MGT progress and funding, but he also said it was apparent the administration was making substantial efforts to provide more information to the Senate, and not just through staff contacts but also by enlisting some of the “big guns” in the administration’s tech corps.

He said the TMF funding item in Senate could be adjusted in one of two ways:  either as an amendment to the appropriations bill that the full Senate has yet to consider, or in a House-Senate conference after both houses have approved FY2019 appropriations legislation.

Hettinger said a major push to get that done by any means available has been coming from Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., who was an original sponsor of the MGT Act in the Senate.

Press representatives for Moran did not respond to a query for comment.

At the bottom line, Hettinger said he expects that those efforts will drive toward Senate funding of MGT somewhere near the $150 million level for FY2019, which would match the figure in the House appropriations bill.

On the separate topic of the FY2018 MGT remaining funding pool, which stands at $55 million currently after $45 million of funding awards were announced last month, Hettinger said he expected the remaining funding to be awarded prior to the end of the current fiscal year (Sept. 30).  He noted the money is “use it or lose it,” and that failure to award the full $100 million would make it harder to convince congressional appropriators that MGT funding requires a substantial boost in FY2019 and beyond.

Bottom line:  GSA’s response to the July 21 deadline, among any other outreach efforts that the Trump administration may undertake, should have a lot to do with the eventual Senate appropriations outcome.

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John Curran
John Curran
John Curran is MeriTalk's Managing Editor covering the intersection of government and technology.